Where Have All the Cowgirls Gone?
Austin's Female Country Singers
Janet Lynn's voice -- bold, resilient, and mightily heartbroken -- sang out at us late one October night like it was straight out of Bradley's Barn, 1960. About 14 people saw her that night, all of us spread out over the echoing dance hall like a few roadies at sound check, but she sang her royal guts out. Considering this town's interest in country music, the fact that only 14 people (15 counting this admirer) showed up for someone as talented as Lynn is a sorry portent for female country artists in these parts. More peculiar, however, is that in this celebrated year of Lilith -- a time when every female musician must, by law, be acknowledged -- some of Austin's best female country stars have faded from view. Go ahead, see for yourself. Check out this week's listings -- or any week's listings. It's hard to find a country gal's name on any club's weekend bill, and if she's there, it's just to support some young country buck.
The excuse that several local club owners give is that gals just don't pack the house. Yes, the Damnations are packing clubs with their brand of country-folk whiskey reels, but newcomer Susanna Van Tassel struggles to get bookings, and her forerunners, Libbi Bosworth, Janet Lynn, Marti Brom, and Kimmie Rhodes are almost completely absent from the scene. It wasn't so long ago, say 1990-94, that you could take your pick of female country voices on any given Friday or Saturday night. Now, most of the women mentioned above, plus a few others like Rosie Flores, who has since moved to Los Angeles, and Mary Cutrufello, who moved to Houston, have seemingly disappeared. In fact, from that early decade heyday, only one woman still stands relatively tall in the clubs and club listings -- Kelly Willis.
Having once served as the emissary of Austin's sound to the larger crowd of Reba McEntire fans, Willis was the reason there was a buzz around Austin's female country singer contingent. Along with peers like Monte Warden, Don Walser, and Chaparral, this shy, waifish traditionalist with signature songs began building her career at the outset of this decade, and it was Willis who was seen by local music enthusiasts as holding the most promise for a commercial country breakthrough. Three albums, two videos on CMT, and two recording contracts later, hindsight reveals Willis' breakthrough as barely a dent in what she acknowledges as the "huge machinery" of Nashville.
"I think they saw me as someone who could be a big money-making artist," recalls Willis, "but the records [I made for MCA] always suffered, because there was a huge difference of opinion. I wanted to take my time to become somebody -- like Iris DeMent, who is an artist trying to make good music. Yet everybody kept saying, `You look beautiful on video,' and that's what sells records. But it's not the whole story. I've always struggled to be respected." In the end, she sighs, "My manager told me I was afraid of success."
There isn't a country artist in town, man or woman, who doesn't recognize that Nashville finds Austin's traditional sound a novelty at best, unmarketable at worst. For those unwilling to be, as Willis says, "metamorphosed" into Trisha Yearwood, contempt reigns. Most don't imagine themselves being a part of that "machinery," anyway. Even so, Willis' experiences had their effect on other female artists in town, according to Heinz Geissler, president of Watermelon Records, which released several local country albums by Walser, Warden, and High Noon.
"The momentum somewhat disappeared for the women when Kelly Willis didn't break through," says the local indie head. "Yes, they all hung in there, and some are still playing, but.... Something eventually has to happen, especially with country music being so popular." That may be wishful thinking, though, especially when taking into account what Lynn's manager T.J. McFarland has to say.
"Most of them aren't going anywhere," says McFarland, "except to have children, raise their children, and have their smallish, regional, little circuit that they work. The fact is, there's a whole lot of talented women who are never going to get heard."
Turns out much of the silence is a sort of mass, self-imposed exile; there's a baby boom going on -- just as McFarland intimated. Bosworth is due in January and is taking time off, while Brom has been missing from the club scene for two years due to her last pregnancy, and another newcomer, Chandler Liberty of Liberty Ranch, is soon to be a mother as well. Even Lynn stopped playing for over 10 years due to family obligations. Brom quips that she and the rest "are just building a fanbase to fill the room."
Changing priorities explains a lot, actually. With the exception of Willis, who has maintained a strong level of interest among her fans, and Susanna Van Tassel, who hadn't moved here yet, Austin's female country contingent hasn't attracted the large audience that their male counterparts -- Walser, Dale Watson, the Derailers --are pulling in. The reason? Priorities. While the men have been busy recording albums, touring, and getting press, the women have been raising families. That right there, says Matt Eskey of Freedom Records, another local indie that has released albums by the Derailers and Bosworth, is their undoing.
"Many of the women here aren't career hustlers," explains Eskey. "You've gotta have that to make it. I would say it's harder to be in a band for a woman. It's hard to tour -- it's a man's environment. You can't criticize people for having other priorities, but people get what they want. Libbi, for instance. She's a real, true talent. But she's here and there. She's limited her exposure, and doesn't really hustle her career. She's got a lot of aspirations, but she works full time, she's pregnant, and she's out of commission."
"Hey, I did play those bars," counters Bosworth, "those `Gimme Three Steps' kind of places. Hip clubs are more fun to play, like the Continental Club. I'd rather wait to play for those places than do 100 nights in a beer joint."
"And yes, I have been unwilling to sleep on other people's couches just to tour," she laughs.
As for her absence from the scene, well, she's been to Nashville, and concedes that upon her return, she didn't pick up her career again. Her reasons may come as a surprise. "It's been a long, personal struggle for me to even accept that I'm a singer -- especially in the last few years. After my father died three years ago, I wanted to settle down and have a family more than anything else.
"[But] there are things you just can't shake loose from your side -- my dad and my childhood is one of those things. It was a wild ride when I was growing up. My dad was an alcoholic who lived in warehouses and garages. He took me to bars at 11am where I would play the jukebox all day. That's how I got interested in music. And I sang to get attention."
Bosworth, in the opinion of Geissler, Eskey, McFarland, and her peers, has the talent to bridge the huge span between Nashville and Austin and create a bigger market for everyone.
"But really if you think about it," reflects McFarland, "it's a perverse thing, to be willing to throw away what might be thought of as a normal life in pursuit of this muse; to be willing to leave your children, not have children, put your relationship at definite risk in order to go out looking for a mountain of gold with a garden shovel. And it's disappointing that many [local female country artists] have stopped or put things on hold, but it also doesn't mean the game is over for them.
"The game's not over for Janet. She was out of it for about 10 years, and finally got her support system going. Some of these ladies may be off duty right now, but not completely out of the picture. You don't know what's going to happen with Libbi Bosworth, and Marti Brom, and Chandler Liberty in 10 years."
Actually, we have some idea. Because Austin's traditional "sound" has no financed industry to keep it going, the choices are pretty simple -- and rather unattractive. One, move around a lot, touring and playing places like the Little Longhorn for the rest of your life with the occasional gig at your friends' children's weddings, or two, go to Nashville and resign yourself to the inevitable transformation of your music into Seventies soft rock and shooting sexy videos for CMT where the nicest thing you hear is, "You look great, baby." Either way, your career goes down the tubes.
Given those options, staying home in the velvet rut seems attractive. Country drummer Lisa Pankratz knows; she's played with the best in this town, is a regular with Ronnie Dawson's touring band, and currently plays with Susanna Van Tassel. "One of the great things about Austin is you don't have to put up with attitude," says Pankratz, "people are very relaxed here. People are like, `Hey, let's play music together.' But you can't let all that relaxation stop you from getting what you want and having ambition."
There's a lot of regret out there. Pankratz is hard on herself for "drifting" in her career and not settling in with a band to work hard on creating a definite, unique sound; Lynn chides herself for "letting go of her dream" for so long; and Bosworth says she regrets "not having a lot of confidence in myself" over the past several years. But out of regret comes the spark of restlessness and ultimately, regeneration. Believe it or not, 1997 might just be the turning point for Austin's best female country singers. Willis, for one, is recording a new album to shop around for the recording contract of her liking. Six of the songs on the album are hers, a rare, but important move on her part. "It's probably the most interesting album I've ever made," says Willis. "There's been a lot of years of experience put in there. There's been a loss of innocence, for sure." Depending on what kind of deal she finds, Willis says she's ready to make sacrifices -- to tour as long as it takes.
At the moment of near-motherhood, Bosworth is also re-creating herself as the singer she always wanted to be. "Now that I have this other side of me that's satisfied, I want to be in the game again," she asserts. "I'm working on a record that is going to be undeniably good -- so good that they can't turn me away." As for parental obligations, Bosworth is optimistic. "I want to show my son that you can go out and do anything you want to do. Music is a part of me and I can't deny it anymore."
For her part, Marti Brom is completing a CD as well as box of 45s, and to listen to her new material is to be reminded that Brom is a hugely entertaining and sexy performer. She's also planning a reunion with her old group the Jet Tone Boys, while also thinking of putting together a new "musical revue -- like something from the Forties."
Certainly one of the more promising stories is that of Janet Lynn, currently pulling herself out of obscurity with her newest album, The Girl You Left Behind. Despite being panned by this newspaper, Lynn's style is pure Texas, with little of the traditional Austin sound local critics have come to expect from local country singers. For that reason, Lynn has trouble getting gigs in town, and has been playing the dance hall circuit for years. Having come to the realization that she's "done all there is to do in Austin," and with her new album to bolster her, Lynn is gunning for a transfer.
Toward that end, and at the request of several Nashville publishing houses, she and McFarland spent some time in Nashville recently, scouting a contract, which is a lucrative way to keep singing. It is also, according to McFarland, "a way that women can empower themselves to find success in the industry in their own way --without having to put on a pantsuit and a big hairdo."
McFarland points to Kimmie Rhodes' Nashville publishing contract and regular gigs with Willie Nelson -- a connection she made over the years and solidified through her husband, music producer Joe Gracy -- as evidence that local female country singers can overcome the inherent obstacles in their chosen career path. Rhodes has worked hard to be independent from Nashville's image requirements and Austin's club scene. Her efforts were bolstered recently by the single, "I'm Not an Angel," from her latest album, being included on the soundtrack to Mrs. Winterbourne. The album is now sixth on the Top Ten-selling country albums, according to a recent report by USA Today.
For one woman, success was simply defined as getting here. In 1995, Susanna Van Tassel thought she had arrived here from Northern California at exactly the right time. She had "hit a wall of non-response" on the West Coast with her traditional country sound, and her friends in Austin were telling her that she should move here and fill the void.
"There were no women left on the country scene," she relates. "That was the perception in town. Of course, I went out there with expectations of meeting other women anyway. And I found them, but it's true, many are not playing anymore."
Van Tassel's first gig was a "trial by fire" affair, a sort of pickin' party at the Broken Spoke during South by Southwest featuring Chris Wall, Dale Watson, and Jesse Dayton. After that, she got a few breaks from Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer, a longtime supporter of Austin's traditional country and rockabilly scene. It was at one of these Continental Club gigs that Van Tassel was spotted by Watermelon's Geissler, and the two are now in negotiation for Van Tassel's first album on the local indie.
Her struggle to find a bigger audience -- she rarely fills a club despite the clarity, range, and tremulous beauty of her voice -- is compounded by the self-consciousness she exhibits on stage. It's not necessarily unattractive, but it is a wall standing in front of the viewer, an obstacle to climb before appreciating her tremendous talent. She's working on it, and exhibits gratitude with an admirable aggressiveness that can only be a self-fulfilling prophesy. "For me, I really appreciate the little things, but I want more than the little things."
But finding an audience for country music, particularly women coming back from long maternity leaves, will be all the more complicated now that the No Depression movement has arrived with the Gourds, Reckless Kelly, and of course, the Damnations. Matt Eskey, who despite putting out Bosworth's wonderful Outskirts of You, doesn't carry any traditional female country artists on his label, says that the dissident country/folk revival that's hit Austin isn't going to help these women out any.
"I think there's a real limitation in that traditional style," says Eskey. "I get a lot more out of a band that's not tied to an era -- like Whiskeytown." And while that sounds harsh, he reminds this reporter that he's truly a big fan of Bosworth's, and speaks only as a musician (he plays bass for Mojo Nixon), not as "some kind of label executive." In whatever capacity, he speaks the truth. While traditional country will always have a home in Austin, the party's over for now. A different breed of country pulls it in these days.
The Damnations are enjoying the bounty of big crowds and an enthusiastic good humor about this whole thing called life. The two front women, sisters Deborah Kelly and Amy Boone, came to Austin a few years ago from upstate New York, bringing with them a fanciful dish of musical upbringing based on folk revivals, Motown, Ira Gershwin memories (Amy's anyway), and current tastes running from the Pogues to Tom Waits and Willie Nelson. Pick up their KUT LiveSet album, and you'll see what they mean.
This local duo represent the most successful movement in country music happening today. It may not play on KASE or KVET, but the new medium of Americana radio is picking up the No Depression bands and giving them a home. There is the potential for financial success, which would ensure the continuation of "Americana" musicians. And this is where Austin's traditional country artists come in.
Americana radio is a small market, notes producer Joe Gracy, who, years ago, was one of the first attempting to bring it to Austin. There are, he says, only 16 or so stations in the U.S. playing Americana music full time, out of 80 stations that play Americana shows. "The market is too small now," agrees Geissler. But it does have potential, he continues, to create a market for the artists in both the No Depression movement and Austin's traditional country scene.
Meanwhile, the Damnations say they'll be exploring their sound, experimenting with bluegrass, maybe some X songs, ragtime, and European folk. "We want to travel, write more songs, be on MTV, and of course, have our own line of action figure dolls," Boone says with a smile. Fabulous. Any plans to record more? "We just want to do our own thing for a while before we get caught up in some control thing with a label," explains Kelly. "But we are planning to develop Damnation Rocks and Socks to hand out at our concerts." The irreverence of success is a beautiful thing.
"Maybe it will be harder for someone just coming up to build an audience than it was in 1991," explains Van Tassel. "I was up against No Depression where I came from. And then I came here and it's here too. I just say, well, here it is again, and I've seen this before. But it won't stop me, and it won't stop Libbi, or Janet, or Kelly. I'm not going to do some totally Gourds thing, or No Depression thing, because that's not me." She pauses and asks the question she knew was coming.
"What's going to happen to singers like me? I don't know. The focus has changed. [The Gourds] are getting a lot of attention and press and drawing a young, hip crowd. It's going to be great for their careers. In the meantime, the Derailers are going to be doing well, and Dale Watson too. So, why shouldn't I do really well on the traditional lines?
"I'm not going to be real doomsday about it and say that's going to ruin me. No, people are going to produce the new thing and play the new thing, and be influenced by Steve Earle instead of Connie Smith. I can't think that everyone who goes out to hear country music is going to say, to hell with this, I'm going over to hear Reckless Kelly."